November 24, 2009

Search Integrity: Google, Bing, and the Michelle Obama Photo Flap

Greetings. Over the last week or so we've seen two seemingly independent Internet-related stories churning up both the blogosphere and mainstream media. Both relate to a topic that most Net users probably only think about occasionally, if at all -- search integrity. The first involves a reported plan for one search engine to use big money to try influence the utility of another search engine. The other involves a racist, manipulated image of the United States' First Lady.

When you use a search engine, whether Google, Bing, or any other, you typically make the implicit assumption that the displayed search results are not secretly biased in ways that would distort your search query.

Of course we all know that major search engines display ads linked to keywords, but the important point is that the user should be able to clearly tell -- through appropriate labeling -- which results are "paid" for inclusion, vs. which ones are natural or organic results (unbiased by payments made to the search engine or its affiliates).

The integrity of a search engine's ranking algorithms can be reasonably viewed as one of the "holy of holies" for firms involved in search. If users can't trust the veracity of organic search results, they can easily -- just a click away! -- switch to competing services.

A vexing aspect of search integrity relates to the handling of particularly disturbing search results that may rise to the top of rankings through the natural workings of search algorithms.

The simplest approach would simply be to remove such "offending" results, but that immediately opens the door to all manner of manipulations being demanded by outside parties, each with their own agenda. The desire to claw one's way to the top of organic search results rankings has spawned the entire Search Engine Optimization (SEO) industry -- and a seemingly endless cat-and-mouse battle between search engines and particularly unscrupulous Web sites.

When a search result clearly leads to a potentially dangerous site -- such as one serving viruses or other forms of malware, tagging the site as a highly risky, or removing it from search listings entirely in some cases, is completely justifiable. And of course if valid legal process demands the removal of a listing, compliance is the only responsible course.

But what of search results that are "merely" obnoxious, disgusting, racist, or otherwise in very bad taste?

As I noted more than two years ago, Google has long had a special sponsored link that appears along with searches for the word "Jew" -- leading to an explanation of offensive search results.

The purpose is clear and appropriate -- don't tamper with the organic results themselves, but provide some context for users to better understand why those results are occurring.

Now comes a racist rendering of Michelle Obama, originally tied to a malware site, and so removed from image search results by Google, but reappearing on other sites without malware connections, and so appearing again in top image results listings on Google.

Google's response to this latter development has been to leave the image in the organic results, but to explain the situation in a manner similar to their procedure for the other offensive results described above.

I've had a number of people write to me lately asking how Google could possibly leave such a racist image of Michelle Obama in their listings. As always, I don't speak for Google, but this strikes me as not even being a particularly tough call.

To do their jobs with integrity, search engines must avoid "special casing" their ranking algorithms with exceptions designed to excise particularly sensitive or controversial topics. Once you start down the path of "micromanaging" individual results that don't represent a clear and present danger to users, you open the door to endless outside pressure to try mold search results to the particular economic, political, religious, or other values of specific individuals or groups. That would seem to me as one of the fastest ways to undermine the trust of the user community at large.

But there's more than one way for a search engine's results to be undermined. Reports -- unconfirmed at this time -- that Microsoft may effectively pay Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. to largely remove his Web sites from Google search listings, suggest a desire in some quarters for a "scorched earth" strategy in the Search Engine Wars -- using big bucks not to expand one's own search engine operations, but rather to try dilute the value of a competitor's organic search results through what effectively amounts to an attempted boycott.

My own suspicion is that such efforts -- if actually deployed -- would not only fail to achieve their apparent aims, but in fact would also likely backfire on their proponents. But the mere fact that such tactics reportedly are under consideration seems indicative of panic in some quarters, of desperate thrashing about in attempts to preserve, rather than adapt -- business models that are increasingly suffering in an Internet-age economy.

The common link in these sagas is the importance of inclusion, rather than exclusion. Whether we're talking about an offensive image in a search ranking or competition between search engines, the excluding of materials, either through internal decisions or the efforts of competitors, should usually be considered as the worst possible outcome for the users of search engines -- and of many other types of Internet services as well, for that matter.

Over the decades of the Internet's evolution it is precisely the inclusion of ever more organized information that has handed to the world's populations potential powers that would have been unimaginable half a century ago -- or perhaps even twenty years ago for that matter.

This public access to information -- mostly without explicit monetary charges other than what's paid for Internet access itself -- absolutely panics and stupefies many of the traditional power bases around the world, especially in high circles of government in some countries.

Dealing with this reality is no simple matter -- anyone who tells you differently is uninformed, confused ... or lying. No "cookie cutter" policy briefs are available to dictate how best to handle each individual class of these dilemmas, particularly in international contexts.

Against such a backdrop, it could be argued that an offensive Photoshopped image and the manipulations of a grizzled "old-media" tycoon aren't of relatively great import.

But as harbingers of the future, as warnings of tough decisions ahead and the battles to come, these are still issues certainly worthy of attention and discussion, so long as we remember that in the final analysis, a great deal more will ultimately be at stake for us all in the Internet's future.


Posted by Lauren at November 24, 2009 10:09 PM | Permalink
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